Taiwan’s defense ministry announced yet another incursion of its Air Defense Identification Zone by Chinese PLAAF aircraft. The intruding PLAAF aircraft totaled 27 including 18 fighter jets, five bombers, and one aerial refueling tanker that flew along the southern part of Taiwan, similar to the previous incursions.
Taipei launched its own fighter jets to intercept the incoming aircraft and also deployed missile systems to counter possible threats.
— 國防部 Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. 🇹🇼 (@MoNDefense) November 28, 2021
The Taiwanese Ministry of Defense has been regularly publishing summaries of repeated incursions by the PLAAF fighter aircraft and also displaying its technical sophistication in electronic sensors to monitor incoming aircraft.
However, maintaining a relatively smaller armed force makes Taiwan vulnerable to Beijing’s military action in a conventional war. While the island’s terrain might complicate targeting and ‘kill chain’ for PLA, these tactical and geographical advantages won’t be enough to make Taipei hold its ground without foreign assistance.
Most of the PLAAF sorties over Taiwan straits have occurred over the South Western corner of Taiwan’s declared ADIZ. Notably, this zone is an expansive area and even includes regions near the Chinese mainland.
The PLA ‘Package’
On October 3, as the People’s Republic of China celebrated its “National Day”, the PLAAF flew the largest-ever ‘package’ of 39 aircraft over the Taiwan straits, in a well-choreographed display of force.
Contrary to most militaries, the People’s Liberation Army is not a full-fledged “Chinese” force. Instead, according to Mao Zedong, “the party commands the gun”. Therefore, all activities performed by the PLA are on the instructions of (and dedicated to) the Chinese communist party.
Beijing has already warned Taipei of a military invasion in case it formally announces independence. This has made for a potentially volatile situation, as Washington has pledged its support to the island nation in case of any mishappening.
The PLAAF ‘package’ generally consists of H-6 long-range bombers, J-10 single-engine multirole fighters, J-11 and J-16 twin-engine air superiority fighters. Often, these are accompanied by support aircraft like Y-20 aerial refueling tankers and, quite interestingly, Airborne Early Warning & Control aircraft necessary for early detection of enemy aircraft and maintaining coordination.
These incursions, or more of military drills, are aimed to enhance the training of PLAAF pilots who lack combat experience and exposure to foreign militaries.
Peter Laytown, a retired RAAF Group Captain, writes in his article published by Lowy Institute that combining fighters, bombers, support aircraft, electronic warfare aircraft and more makes the overall package more effective and more survivable in hostile airspace than single aircraft flying independently. Packages are hard to do and require extensive, tailored training. Doing them at night is doubly hard.
Clearly, such formations are part of extensive exercises aimed to enhance preparedness against Taiwanese and, potentially US Air Force. Maritime strike exercises are aimed to prevent any supply ship from reaching the island upon the declaration of war.
Interestingly, Laytown also points out that there are some implications. “The PLAAF aircrew are getting better in terms of being able to use their fast-modernizing fleet more effectively.
The PLAAF is now exhibiting the kind of proficiencies that Western air forces have long trained in exercises such as Red Flag in Alaska and Pitch Black in Darwin.
On the other hand, the PLAAF is still not flying that far out to sea and none of the packages featured air-to-air refueling tankers.” “It appears to remain an air force mainly for China’s periphery not beyond,” he says.
The strategy of incursions also plays at the diplomatic, economic, and logistical levels. An aircraft has to undergo considerable stress on its airframe each time it performs a sortie, and over-excessive use wears down the airframe. This increases the maintenance costs considerably and eats about 8-9% of Taiwan’s national defense budget.
The ROCAF Response
Compared to the PLAAF, Taiwan operates a very small but highly capable fleet of aircraft. However, Beijing is catching up to bridge the gap and make its military ‘comparable to US forces’ by 2027- a supposed ‘deadline’ for Taiwan.
The ROCAF (Republic of China Air Force) pilots remain in a high state of readiness due to the threat posed by China. They are the prime ‘protectors’ of the island, being the first responders to any aerial and naval incursions by the PLA.
The service primarily operates its homegrown F-CK-1 C/D ‘Hsiang Sheng’ and the American F-16 V fighter jets as primary interceptors in case of PLAAF intrusions. The F-16 V is the most technologically advanced variant of the F-16, and the former is a twin-engine multirole fighter developed in-house after Washington refused to sell F-20 Tigershark under pressure from China.
The service also operates French Mirage 2000-5EI fighter jets, however, has not really been upgraded since its introduction due to the high costs involved. Still, the ROCAF maintains the Mirages due to its high operational readiness.
The F-16V, F-CK-1 C and Mirage-2000 provide the ROCAF with considerable power against the PLAAF, however reducing the qualitative edge with its sheer numbers and improvising tech, including 5th-generation fighter jets – J-20.
Nevertheless, determining a war scenario without considering ‘wildcard’ elements like espionage, sabotage, assassinations, cyberattacks, morale, experience and training of troops is like playing chess without the knight.
Therefore, any ‘conclusive’ and decisive conclusion could be a mere fantasy, and even highly trained pilots in lower-generation aircraft have managed to shoot down a technologically superior aircraft.